Today, three previously very hard to find novels by Freeman Wills Crofts are republished by HarperCollins: Death on the Way (1932), The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936), and Man Overboard! (1936). September will add Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), Crime at Guildford (1935), and Sudden Death (1932) to that, bringing the total of Crofts’ works in ready circulation up to twenty. I have no idea why they’re being published out of order, and frankly I don’t really care — it’s mainly just delightful to see him getting some traction — and I wanted to celebrate by continuing my broadly chronological reading of Crofts with this, the first of his which ever came to my attention.
The plot sees young, sensible Anne Day appointed amidst Depression-hit job market — “with the unemployment figures standing where they were, to be out of a job was terrifying” we’re informed — as housekeeper for Severus Grinsmead and his wife Sibyl at their Kent home. It will be Anne’s job to take over the management of the household from the sickly Sibyl, and Anne is wise to the need to improve, if improvement is needed, carefully: “the lady wouldn’t appreciate too glaring a commentary on her own administration… Anne would have to walk warily and not be in a hurry to make changes”. And, aside from an omni-directional coldness from Sibyl, the job and conditions are better than Anne could have ever hoped…but, since Crofts has a habit of HIBKing his female protagonists — c.f. The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) — we know something bad is on the way:
[H]ad she known all that awaited her at Ashbridge, she might well have drawn back in dismay, preferring the known humiliation of the scullery maid’s job to the agonies of fear and horror and suspense which she was fated to endure with the Grinsmeads.
So when a body turns up in a room that is bolted from the inside, and when a canny coroner is unconvinced that the apparent suicide is the correct conclusion, cue Scotland Yard in the shape of Inspector Joseph French.
Since the first third of the book is spent getting to know the denizens of the house before French takes over, there’s an argument that Sudden Death is the first country house mystery of that stalwart gentleman’s literary career (Crofts had one prior on his resume with The Ponson Case (1921)). That the crux of this matter revolves around a closed circle howdunnit and whodunnit, rather than the meticulous and far-ranging investigations with which Crofts (and, in-universe, French) had become so very highly respected for gives the whole thing a smaller, more intimate feel that highlights once again how committed Crofts was to ringing the changes from book to book. To see French fraternising with our suspects from the off, essentially fulfilling a sort of Hercule Poirot or Roger Sheringham rôle, sort of tickled me, though I appreciate others won’t pick up on this without the context of the previous books.
Of course, it’s not a complete volte face — there will be the checking of alibis (but your Poirots do that, too…) and promising clues which peter out to nothing, and we’ll dig into the Rogues’ Gallery of French’s brother officers in rustling up the delightful, technically-minded Sergeant Ormsby for more shenanigans — but it feels like we get to spend a little more time with French and get to know him a little better: his absurdly functional reduction of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous axiom is as brilliantly dull as you’d expect, but the Alice in Wonderland reference is very relatable, and we elsewhere get to see a little of the romance in his soul:
It always impressed him, the gentle beginning of a snowstorm. It seemed to him a model of how a symphony should begin: a faint, high-pitched melody from some soft instrument, wavering uncertainly down from the ceiling, being joined by instrument after instrument, till at length the entire orchestra, with strength and decision, was thundering out some striking theme.
The locked room death — for ’tis murder — is solved by about the two-thirds point (‘ware flipping ahead, there are diagrams), just in time for a second death in a locked study, and off we go again. And this is where things get especially interesting, because in his discussions with the local man after each death, I’m going to suggest that Sudden Death supplies us with a Locked Room Lecture that predates that of The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr and provides a similarly dazzling array of options for how to murder someone in a room and make it appear sealed. Crofts is less showy about it, but read this in September and tell me I’m wrong.
The methods are…perfectly fine, even if the first is arrived at rather more by intuition that detection (being technical, and very cleverly so, French “sees” the answer because Crofts knows it) and the second…well, here’s the thing. The second is familiar, but given the care gone into with that Lecture, is there a chance that no-one had done this before? Possibly not, you’ll probably be shouting obvious predated examples at me, but it has enough nice touches (the use of the encyclopedia is especially inspired) to pass, and I’d like to think well of it. You can certainly see why French is more comfortable with empirical evidence than the psychological, and it may be from this that the erroneous claim of “Crofts is all about timetables” which so irritates me rises, but you can’t fault the man for trying.
Of historical interest, the fleeting references to the Depression aside, it’s interesting to note that the suggestion of Severus Grinsmead’s mother being “very old” is shot down because “she doesn’t look more than sixty”, and if a novel set in 1932 but written post-1960 had similarly referred to the old dear as being “as hard as nails” I’d’ve assumed it was a disgustingly lazy anachronism. In a slightly bland cast of characters, Anne stands out, too, for her agency and common sense: dismissing the blowhard Bolsover beautifully in her own mind, and picking up on a key piece of evidence along the way to solving the second crime (for, hey, ’tis also murder). You also have to wonder if Crofts leaving one (very, very slight) aspect of the final solution unknown — and telling you he’s doing so — is an attempt at genre verisimilitude, since for a man of his technical mind it would be thoroughly possible for him to have devised some explanation, surely…
So, after nearly 20 years of waiting, Sudden Death does not disappoint. Quite apart from the two locked room murders, it’s simply wonderful to see Crofts applying himself to new wrinkles in the detection novel, and the man’s industry is to be celebrated. This will be a great addition to the ranks of classic crime reprints with which we’re currently blessed, and it’s going to be wonderful to finally have the chance to actually discuss this without people having to fork out absurd sums for the privilege (I was lucky, and didn’t pay too over the odds for my House of Stratus edition, shown above). Here’s hoping it’s simply one of many still to come.
Curtis @ The Passing Tramp: Crofts himself thought enough of Sudden Death that he turned it into a play, writing for advice his friend Dorothy L. Sayers, who had staged Busman’s Honeymoon as a play in December 1936 (later reversing Crofts’ process by adapting it as a novel). Crofts’ play was performed under the title Inspector French twice in 1937, first in July by the Otherwise Club near Guildford at the Barn Theatre (where, regrettably, a bat flitting around the barn distracted the audience’s attention from the play); and second in October, by the Guildford Repertory Company.
Freeman Wills Crofts reviews on The Invisible Event: